By DAVID DIZON
Cutting financing of terror groups while focusing on the rehabilitation of rebel returnees is the key towards finally solving the problem of terrorist groups in southern Philippines, a former member of the al-Qaeda linked Abu Sayyaf Group said.
The former Abu Sayyaf member, alias "Danny," declined to be identified since he is under the government's witness protection program. (Note: Danny currently works at the PIPVTR as research analyst)
"Danny" said many non-profit groups and jihadist organizations that support the Abu Sayyaf's cause are very much willing to extend financial support to the terrorist group.
"They use emissaries from Saudi Arabia to send the money through banks. Other organizations have also tried to bring funds to the Abu Sayyaf even after the [International Islamic Relief Organization] was exposed as a financier of the group. Some of these groups are being investigated right now," he told abs-cbnNEWS.com.
"Danny" said he is one of the original organizers of the Abu Sayyaf Group, having graduated from the same religious school that produced Abu Sayyaf founder and original leader Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani.
A native of Basilan, he said the group was originally founded by Janjalani in the early 1990s after a disagreement with the separatist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) headed by Nur Misuari. Many MNLF members joined the Abu Sayyaf after the MNLF leadership became open to a government proposal of an autonomous region instead of a separate Islamic state.
"Danny" admitted that he had personal knowledge about how foreign non-profit organizations would send money to local jihadist groups such as the MNLF and Abu Sayyaf.
Role of IIRO
"Danny" said that after his graduation in 1990, he was recruited by Jamal Khalifa, head of the local International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO) office to help in the building of orphanages in several cities in Mindanao. He said it was also during this time that the IIRO began giving funds to Janjalani to form another jihadist group that would later be called the Abu Sayyaf.
"The Abu Sayyaf would not have been able to form without the financial assistance of Khalifa. During that time, we did not know that Khalifa was the brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden. All we knew was that he was a philanthropist and the head of IIRO," he said.
The IIRO is one of Saudi Arabia's largest charitable organizations. It is accused of funding terrorist attacks in different countries, including the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States where thousands of people were killed.
"Danny" said Khalifa personally met with Janjalani and other Abu leaders to give the funds. He said Khalifa bought firearms for the group and paid for the training of the Abu Sayyaf fighters.
He also supported Janjalani's application for an IIRO study grant program that allowed the future Abu Sayyaf leader to study Islamic da'wah (lay preaching) in Libya for two years.
"Danny" said that while many Muslims supported the jihadist struggle, some were also surprised when the Abu Sayyaf turned to kidnap-for-ransom to support their activities.
"At that time, we did not know that it was going to be a terrorist organization kasi we still thought of it as an ideological struggle. There was a deviation of strategy and that was when the financing came in," he said.
He also pointed out that no one questioned Janjalani's order to do kidnap-for-ransom activities because he was considered an authority in matters of the Islamic faith. Opposing the Abu Sayyaf leader, he said, would mean being labeled "an enemy of Islam."
"Danny" said the Abu Sayyaf first kidnapped a teacher from Davao in 1992. The teacher's family would later pay P1 million ransom for the hostage's release, which at the time was still a considerable amount of money.
He said that after he joined the group, he was placed in charge of religious instruction and preparation of jihad in the area.
"I supported the jihad, which is taught in the Koran as a struggle. However, there are many interpretations of jihad including armed struggle, which was followed by Abdurajak,"he said.
"Danny" said he left the group in 1993 to continue his education and eventually teach in the Basilan High School. During this time, he maintained ties with the group without participating in their activities. This changed in 2000 when Basilan Gov. Wahab Akbar accused him of actively participating in kidnapping activities of the Abu Sayyaf.
"Instead of being killed, I rejoined the group. They put a P1 million reward for my head, which led to my arrest in 2002," he said.
"Danny" said he was released from prison last January after spending almost six years in jail. Now reformed, he now works as a consultant for the Philippine Institute for Political Violence and Terrorism Research and helps government to reform rebel returnees.
He said rehabilitation and giving livelihood projects to the rebel returnees is more effective than just relying on a military solution to end the Abu Sayyaf problem.
"There are people in the organization that can be rehabilitated while others, I think, won't be open to that anymore. We are involved in efforts to make them lay down their arms and cooperate with government and stop the kidnappings," he said.
He said getting funds to the Abu Sayyaf is no longer easy since the government is investigating various non-profit groups and charities suspected of being terrorist sympathizers.
He also said that continuous military offensives against the Abu Sayyaf is stopping the group from mounting more kidnap attempts.
He added, however, that a military solution will not eliminate the problem of the Abu Sayyaf in the long run.
"If we want to end the problems with the Muslim people, we have to be with them and talk to them and know what they want. We have to convince them that not all government is against religion, that the Philippine and US governments are not against Islam. They have to take concrete steps to uplift the lives of these people," he said.